NYTimes and the RatherGate-esque Fake Abortion Yarn
This is probably as good of a year-end post as any, to adhere to the original purpose of this blog. Pretty much anything that can be said about abortion, has been said. Bummer probably sits to the left of most of the B23 when it comes to this issue, but Bummer is known to ask his pro-choice pals about the tens of millions of abortions performed in the U.S. since the Roe case. Most data suggests that around 1.3 million abortions are performed each year in the U.S. One source indicates that about 13,000 women have abortions each year following rape or incest - that is, ~1% of abortions.
Regardless of one's personal opinion of abortion, it is a bedrock issue for the Left. Ascertaining "why?" is interesting, but not the point of this post. Knowing its audience, with so many of the Left being of the Sunday morning NYTimes habit,* the NYTimes needs to pander to its Sunday morning audience.
And pander it did. An April article about the illegality of abortion in many parts of the world, uses as its poster girl a woman serving a 30-year sentence of having an abortion.
Except ... it's not true. The story is fake, like the RatherGate TANG memos. She was sentenced for aggravated murder of a newborn. She killed her normally born (i.e., brought to full term, presumably 3rd treimester) infant, and then backdated the killing date to claim it had occured months earlier as an abortion, and not a strangulation after giving birth.
The NYTimes didn't bother to fact-check this critical keystone of the story.
Today, to ring out 2006, 2/3 of a year after the fact, the NYTimes runs an almost RatherGate-esque admission that its abortion story was fabricated. Well, the actual word "fabricated" isn't used. Lots of politically correct synonyms are used, as with the RatherGate report.
Fakery is fakery. Read for yourself:
December 31, 2006
The Public Editor
Truth, Justice, Abortion and the Times Magazine
By BYRON CALAME
THE cover story on abortion in El Salvador in The New York Times Magazine on April 9 contained prominent references to an attention-grabbing fact. “A few” women, the first paragraph indicated, were serving 30-year jail terms for having had abortions. That reference included a young woman named Carmen Climaco. The article concluded with a dramatic account of how Ms. Climaco received the sentence after her pregnancy had been aborted after 18 weeks.
It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.
The issues surrounding the article raise two points worth noting, both beyond another reminder to double-check information that seems especially striking. Articles on topics as sensitive as abortion need an extra level of diligence and scrutiny — “bulletproofing,” in newsroom jargon. And this case illustrates how important it is for top editors to carefully assess the complaints they receive. A response drafted by top editors for the use of the office of the publisher in replying to complaints about the Hitt story asserted that there was “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported.”
Apart from the flawed example of Ms. Climaco, Mr. Hitt’s 7,800-word cover article provided a broad and intriguing look at a nation where the penal code allows prison sentences for a woman who has an abortion, the provider of the procedure or anyone who assisted. His interviews with doctors, nurses, police officers, prosecutors, judges and both opponents and advocates of abortion offered revealing personal perspectives on the effects of the criminalization of the procedure.
Complaints about the article began arriving at the paper after an anti-abortion Web site, LifeSiteNews.com, reported on Nov. 27 that the court had found that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy ended with a full-term live birth. The headline: “New York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper — Infanticide Portrayed as Abortion.” Seizing on the misleading presentation of the article’s only example of a 30-year jail sentence for an abortion, the site urged viewers to complain to the publisher and the president of The Times. A few came to me.
The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didn’t meet the magazine’s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazine’s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are “normally” reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panel’s decision.
Mr. Hitt said Ms. Climaco had been brought to his attention by the magistrate who decided four years ago that the case warranted a trial, so he had asked the magistrate for the court record. “When she told me that the case had been archived, I accepted that to mean that I would have to rely upon the judge who had been directly involved in the case and who heard the evidence” in the trial stage of the judicial process, Mr. Hitt wrote in an e-mail to me. So he didn’t pursue the document.
But obtaining the public document isn’t difficult. At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling. It proved to be the same document as the one disseminated by LifeSiteNews.com, which had been translated into English in early December by a translator retained by The Times Magazine’s editors. I’ve since had the stringer review the translation of key paragraphs for me.
The magistrate, Mr. Hitt noted, “had been helpful in other areas of the story and quite open.” So when she recalled one doctor’s estimate that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had been aborted at 18 weeks, he used that in the article. (The only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn’t seen any fetus and whose deductions from the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth were found by the three judges to be flawed.)
Mr. Hitt concluded the article with this summation of the Climaco case: “The truth was certainly — well, not in the ’middle’ so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s [another woman cited earlier in the story], something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.”
The caption under Ms. Climaco’s picture was notably specific. It stated flatly that she “was given 30 years for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.”
When Times Magazine editors provided me with an English-language version of the court findings on Dec. 8, just after the translation had been completed, there was little ambiguity in the court’s findings. “We have an already-formed and independent life here,” the court said. “Therefore we are not dealing with an abortion here, as the defense has attempted to claim in the present case.”
The physician who had performed the autopsy on the “recently born” testified that it represented a “full-term” birth, which he defined as a pregnancy with a duration of “between 38 and 42 weeks,” the ruling noted. In adopting those conclusions, the court said of another autopsy finding: “Given that the lungs floated when submerged in water, also indicating that the recently-born was breathing at birth, this confirms that we are dealing with an independent life.”
Exceptional care must be taken in the reporting process on sensitive articles such as this one to avoid the slightest perception of bias. Paul Tough, the editor on the article, acknowledged in an e-mail to me that in reporting this story, Mr. Hitt used an unpaid translator who has done consulting work for Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group, for his interviews with Ms. Climaco and D.C. This wasn’t ideal, he said, but the risk posed for sources in this situation required the use of intermediaries “to some degree.”
Ipas used The Times’s account of Ms. Climaco’s sentence to seek donations on its Web site for “identifying lawyers who could appeal her case” and to help the organization “continue critical advocacy work” across Central America. “A gift from you toward our goal of $30,000 will help Carmen and other Central American women who are suffering under extreme abortion laws,” states the Web appeal, which Ipas said it took down after I first contacted the organization on Dec. 14. An Ipas spokeswoman called the appeal “moderately successful.”
The magazine’s failure to check the court ruling was then compounded for me by the handling of reader complaints about the issue. The initial complaints triggered a public defense of the article by two assistant managing editors before the court ruling had even been translated into English or Mr. Hitt had finished checking various sources in El Salvador. After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.
The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.” [bwaa ha ha ha -- ed.]
After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.
The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”
I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”
One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.
* - The I love the NYTimes on a Sunday morning" identifier is singlewoman code for: I'm liberal, I don't go to church, and I like to wake up with my man on Sunday and nurse my hangover with coffee while reading the NYTimes...Bummer knows),